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Design systems: higher consistency & efficiency in design and software

Would you like your product development to be faster and more efficient? Would you like to improve collaboration between design and development? And increase the quality and consistency of your digital products at the same time? Using a design system, you can achieve exactly that. It is not a surprise that all the big players have their own design system – whether it's Google, SAP, Airbnb or Spotify. We will show you what's behind the hype buzzword and how your company can also benefit from a design system.

With digital transformation, product development is also changing: It becomes more modular, responsive and collaborative. Products and services have long since ceased to be individual applications. These are a multitude of digital touchpoints – on many platforms and devices. They are merging into huge digital ecosystems. To further develop this, product management, design, front-end and back-end development, marketing and sales must work closely together on projects.

This results in a variety of challenges for stakeholders:

  • Developers want to create new products and features without repeating the same discussions and work over and over for different products and media.
  • Product owners have a need to get their products to market faster and better.
  • Marketing wants customers to experience the brand consistently - no matter what channel or device they use.
  • Designers aim to make their designs accessible to all teams and ensure that everyone complies with the defined design guidelines and principles.
  • From a business perspective, product development needs to become more efficient and brand awareness needs to improve.

Your solution to all these challenges is design systems. Using them, you can face the complexity of the digital world.

What is a design system?

A design system is a tool that allows design and development to work together to implement products with higher quality and less effort. As a single source of truth, it encompasses all the elements that make up a brand's design and that the project team needs to design digital products. Therefore, a design system is a framework with clear guidelines, principles and reusable components. Google's Material Design is one of the best-known examples of a design system.

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Components of a design system

In detail, a design system consists of the following elements:

  • Design principles, for example on accessibility, information architecture, or motion design, lay the common ground for all participants in the project.
  • A style guide documents the branding of a company: What is the brand impact? How is it represented on different media? What language is used for the content? A style guide regulates how graphic design elements such as logos, colors, grids, icons, typography, etc. look and how they are used in different contexts.
  • Components and patterns: While a style guide tends to include guidelines and instructions for the design, component and pattern libraries, on the other hand, contain predefined, reusable UI components. These components and patterns describe how interactive elements look and behave. For example, it defines how a button changes color on click or tap, or how an accordion element unfolds. In most cases, the UI components and UI patterns are already implemented as code snippets. This code can be quickly and easily copied by designers and developers to create new applications and features.
  • Best practices help to better comprehend the system's policies and create a common understanding.

The design language of a brand

A design system defines the design language that the project team uses to design digital products and services - consistently and efficiently. On the one hand, it includes the individual letters and vocabulary (components and patterns) of this language. On the other hand, it provides the grammar, the rules and principles by which words become meaningful sentences. However, design systems are not a standardized set of rules. Rather, they are comparable to the Duden. Although the latter specifies the correct use of language, it is always adapting to new conventions.

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Why is a design system useful?

A design system is worthwhile even for a single digital product. It will be more effective the more products and services your company has, and the more teams are working on them.

The following advantages speak for a design system:

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Many touchpoints, a coherent brand and user experience: Users experience your brand through different touchpoints. With a design system, you can promote visual consistency of your brand across all channels and devices. This benefits companies, brands and users alike: The consistent look and feel strengthens your brand, as users become more used to it and begin to recognize it easier. Because of the uniformity, users can better learn and understand the new products. Because they can transfer known patterns, from one product to another. This in turn reduces the cognitive load. Uniformity thus ensures a positive user experience – and thus a valuable distinctive feature for your brand.

Efficient development

A design system speeds up the design and development process in the company: With design systems, designs can be replicated quickly and on a large scale, allowing it to become more scalable. The team does not have to solve and discuss design tasks over and over again. Instead, it can (re)use the prefabricated components to develop enhancements or new products. This enhances coordination and development efforts and avoids redundant work. The better a design system is built, the faster new solutions can emerge. Resources are freed up for the design team to invest in more complex problems such as user journey management or workflow optimization.

Better collaboration

A design system improves collaboration, especially in multidisciplinary teams: It ensures that designers, developers and other stakeholders share the same understanding of design and speak the same visual language. This improves communication and collaboration between disciplines – but also with external stakeholders such as agencies. Briefing agencies is easier and fewer proofing loops are needed.

Higher quality

Maximum quality assurance, fewer errors: Because teams use global components, the design system eliminates many sources of error and redundancy. Teams can also more easily ensure quality and consistency because there is only one single source of truth. The team can invest the time gained, for example, in tests such as usability or UI tests that further optimize the quality of the solutions.

Design system – the ideal solution for everything?

A design system is more than just components, patterns, code, styles, and guidelines: "It's the purpose and connections that hold it together" (Alla Kholmatova, FutureLearn)*. They are people who design, manage, and deploy design systems. Therefore, it must be clear to you: A design system does not per se ensure better products. The best design system is of no use if the teams do not use it or use it correctly. This can have different reasons: A design system fundamentally interferes with usual and perhaps cherished processes of design and development. Familiarization also appears more costly in the short term before efficiency gains pay off. Possibly, the team worries that the design system will limit their creative freedom. A great deal of sensitivity and experience is required when introducing the system.

It is not enough to create a design system once. Like a living organism, it continues to develop as an important part of the company. Comparable to the products that emerge from them, design systems must be continuously maintained, tested and further developed. This requires the appropriate workflows that fit into the processes of design and development. With feedback from teams and end users, the design system can be continuously improved. If requirements change or new ones are added, the design system must also be adapted. Therefore, a design system is only as effective as the team that manages it.

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Conclusion: Design with a system

A design system helps your designers and developers produce new products and features quickly and efficiently in projects. By reusing components, they don't have to reinvent the wheel every time. There is time and budget to focus on the essentials: the user experience. A design system optimizes collaboration between design and development and eliminates many sources of error and redundancy. At the same time, it ensures the consistency your brand needs. This way, you offer your customers a uniformcoent brand and user experience – across all media and platforms.

Do you also want to benefit from a design system? We support you – from the creation to the maintenance.

The authors

Whether inbound marketing, social media or event organization – Juliane Markotschi has over 15 years of experience in classic and digital communication. The specialist in German studies and communication scientist discovered her passion for topics from the world of UX at UID and has been taking it out to the world on the UID channels ever since.

Talk directly with Juliane about design systems – via LinkedIn or E-Mail.

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News Autorin Jasmin

Jasmin Hellmann is Senior User Experience Designer. She has more than 5 years of experience in the user-centric design of user interfaces – from conception to visual design to development support in interdisciplinary agile teams.

Talk directly with Juliane about design systems – via LinkedIn or E-Mail.